The Crowded Room Review: Apple TV+'s Psychological Thriller Miscasts Tom Holland And Amanda Seyfried
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The Crowded Room Review: Apple TV+'s Psychological Thriller Miscasts Tom Holland And Amanda Seyfried

Mar 23, 2023

"The comic-book franchise is where traditional movie stardom is going to die," wrote Wesley Morris in a widely-shared 2016 piece for The New York Times. "Every good young actor vacuumed up by a superhero franchise or a megahit movie series costs us a fresh star persona." The statement was relevant just weeks after Tom Holland slung his first web as Spider-Man, and it's relevant now as he plots his path forward as an actor with his fate inside the suit still uncertain.

The fresh-faced innocence he brought to the third cinematic incarnation of a comic-book character within two decades made him a fan favorite in the "Avengers" series. Any audience who saw the final two chapters can recall feeling the air sucked out of the room when he vanishes in "The Snap" — and remember cheering when he re-emerges in the grand finale battle. As arguably the only star birthed by participating in the Marvel machine, Holland is the exception that proves the rule. But for a thespian brought up through the West End's "Billy Elliot" musical and cutting his early cinematic chops alongside Naomi Watts in dramas like "The Impossible," there's a gnawing sense in his recent role selection that he wants something more.

Apple TV+ once again gives him a platform to flex his talent in "The Crowded Room," a miniseries where the cherubic chap gets a chance to explore his darker side. It's similar in spirit to the already-forgotten "Cherry," the Holland-fronted feature in which he plays an Iraq War veteran whose PTSD leads him down a grim path of addiction and crime. This bleak series marks yet another unfortunate occasion in which the actor mistakes trauma for drama.

The two concepts might rhyme, but the former does not always resonate when portrayed in such a heavy-handed manner. Despite the best intentions of all involved here, this genre-bending thriller proves as overstuffed as its title indicates. While some storytelling excess feels endemic to the miniseries format, "The Crowded Room" makes its twists and turns feel tedious by virtue of being underdeveloped.

The overarching frame of "The Crowded Room" consists of Holland's Danny Sullivan seated across a long table from Amanda Seyfried's Rya Goodwin. He's in jail for a shooting in Rockefeller Center, which he commits uneasily in the series' first scene under pressure from the volatile Ariana (Sasha Lane). She's there to ask him questions and learn about what led him to take such an action — and perhaps come away with some answer to why he's there in the first place.

It's possible for good actors or an inspired visual stylist to turn such a sedentary centerpiece into something exciting. But this crucial storytelling device in "The Crowded Room" is dramatically inert from the start. They slow down whatever momentum that builds in showing the events that push Danny from a tranquil suburban existence to a startling public crime, flashbacks vividly realized by talented directors like Mona Fastvold, Brady Corbet, and Kornél Mundruczó. Neither performer gets much of a chance to showcase their talents, either, between the painfully on-the-nose dialogue they must trade and their lifeless delivery of said material.

Especially for Seyfried, fresh off a role in "The Dropout" that showed how much she can do in a simple close-up, such forced constraint feels like the fault of the production. It's a more complicated calculus for Holland, whose character has much more emotional dimension to play. Part of Danny's tragedy is just how passive he has been in the events leading up to his imprisonment, a complicity that the show does provide some explanation for in its back half. But any back-and-forth in the character's mind just renders as blankness in Holland's sedate performance. For someone best known for his million-watt smile and bubbly charisma, such unilateral disarmament by Holland is a baffling choice.

It's become somewhat of a cliché in the Peak TV era to say, "Just stick with this show until episode five, then it gets good!" But "The Crowded Room" takes that to a different extreme. It takes until episode five to get past what is essentially laying out the table stakes of the story. It's just blowing through plot points and hinting at something brewing underneath the improbability of it all. That something turns out to be the very purpose behind Akiva Goldsman creating the show at all. And because the series hides this motivation inside a big "twist" that proves one of the limited series' main attractions, it's naturally off-limits to discuss in a pre-release review.

To abide by Apple's spoiler embargo is to forego any discussion of what "The Crowded Room" actually is. Key elements of Danny and Rya's personalities and professions must remain under lock and key. An entire thematic concern is off-the-table for mentioning. It would be one thing if these things were more skillfully unveiled by the show's midpoint, but they are telegraphed from the beginning. These revelations are so easy to spot coming that none of them feel like surprises at all.

So, what is there to say then about "The Crowded Room" as it reveals its true face in the shift from a psychological thriller-tinged procedural to a courtroom drama where Danny's self and soul go on trial? It's a chance for showrunner Akiva Goldsman to redeem himself from some of the criticisms leveled against one of his most acclaimed works ... but cannot escape some unfortunate genre trappings. It's an opportunity for Tom Holland to pull from the playbook of some heralded actors ... but plays like an overwrought bid to be taken seriously. It's a bunch of well-intentioned but sanctimonious speeches about justice and trauma ... but it already feels so 2017.

"The Crowded Room" is yet another disappointment in the lineage of post-"Big Little Lies" miniseries that could have just been movies. But, flush with cash, TV and streaming executives got high off the idea that this newly revitalized form was the new novel. Now, it's viewers who are buckling under the weight of bloated, bumbling execution sorely lacking the storytelling economy of feature filmmaking. Whatever Goldsman, Holland, and Seyfried think they have the time to slowly build over these ten episodes is too minute to register.

There's an all-too-brief moment in a later episode of "The Crowded Room" when the full Tom Holland starlight breaks through. As the disco track "Don't Leave Me This Way" blasts, he breaks into a little spontaneous dance. He's lithe, limber, and – most of all – free. Holland burrowed his way into millions of hearts with this style of electric, exuberant energy. Hopefully, he can achieve the recognition he wants from a series like "The Crowded Room" from the upcoming Fred Astaire biopic, for his sake as well as that of audiences. Holland need not foreswear his core competencies in morose roles like the one in this series to prove anything.

"The Crowded Room" premieres June 9, 2023 on Apple TV+.